Jack Wild: Lived Up To His Name

Jack Wild (1952-2006) was born on the last day of September. Wild was probably the first star I was ever aware of, seeing as how he was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1968), one of the few musicals I knew and liked as a kid, and played the boy Jimmy in Sid and Marty Krofft’s groundbreaking psychedelic kids series H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-1970). I was four and five years old during the initial run of Pufnstuf. Definitely my first star.

Wild also cut three pop record albums. On this small sliver of work he built enormous fame. When I was a small kid Wild was a teen idol on the order of David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. Kids hung posters of him in their rooms; he was on the covers of magazines. His agent was June Collins, the mother of Phil Collins (Phil Collins’ mother was an agent? That explains a lot!) When he came back to American kid’s tv in 1973 on an episode of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, it was a big deal.

Something about Wild was just perfect. He had the ideal professional name and it suited his character and his look. He looked like the British rock stars of the time, like a more youthful version of The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. His hair was styled that way. He was very short, like Davy Jones, and was given roles to play much younger than he was. And he really was a working class ragamuffin; he’d actually worked as a milkman’s assistant when he was only eight years old. He seemed naughty, the kind of kid I was always a little scared of.

Wild worked much more in Britain, thus his body work is larger than most Americans are aware of. He’d been acting on stage and screen since around 1964. Following Pufnstuf, he continued to appear in British movies and tv. He’s in Jacques Demy’s 1972 Pied Piper movie with Donovan. He returned to Dickens in a seven part adaptation of Our Mutual Friend (1976). Other series included The Government Inspector (1976), Everyday Maths (1978-1979), and The Ravelled Thread (1979-1980).

But he hit the skids in the ’80s. A 1982 Polish version of Alice in Wonderland with Lulu and Susanna York was his last screen work for a while. He was 30 years old by this point and a severe alcoholic. He did live theatre for several years. Then he had a minor comeback about a decade later with a small role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), looking like this:

About a half dozen films came after this. In 2000, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer, with which he struggled for six years before it eventually killed him. He blamed his cancer on having smoked since the age of 12; he’d also has diabetes since age 21, as well as the long term alcoholism. It was the booze of course which prevented his career from going where it really might have. But there was another kind of harmful intoxication. For several years he was worshipped on the basis of his looks and personality; his head was turned by the adulation. While his early work earned him many awards and nominations, he coasted as he got older, rather than working hard, getting better, and creating new challenges for himself. But, then, his name was Jack Wild — not Jack Steady Application and Admirable Self-Discipline.

4 comments

  1. I’m a huge fan of his and just read his autobiography. Funny (sad-funny) enough, he didn’t lead a “wild” life in the traditional sense; his alcoholism, when it got serious, was private and messy — he wasn’t your traditional hard-partier, and he seldom did drugs. According to his memoir, which was edited and published posthumously by his widow and second wife Claire, he was a late-bloomer and wasn’t interested in throngs of girls who wrote to him and occasionally stalked him; he seems to’ve had lots of female friends but only a few, very longterm girlfriends/partners (his longterm first girlfriend/wife Gaynor Jones and his widow Claire… Only one other girlfriend is mentioned… But I suppose being sick with drink for a decade doesn’t leave much time for ladies). The diabetes seems to have resulted from the pancreatitis — i.e., islets cells damaged/removed… Not sure — and he also suffered several cardiac arrests. He didn’t eat much and at times was severely underweight. His brother Arthur also died of alcohol-related health issues. Interestingly, he seems to’ve had a lovely and close relationship with his parents and his brother… It wasn’t a traditional Hollywood-child-star story in that sense.

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